The historic Viking trading centre of Birka, on Björkö in Lake Mälaren, makes a fantastic day trip. A Unesco World Heritage site, it was founded around AD 760 to expand and control trade in the region. The village attracted merchants and craft workers, and the population quickly grew to about 700. A large defensive fort with thick dry-stone ramparts was constructed nearby.
Birka was abandoned in the late 10th century when Sigtuna took over the role of commercial centre.
The village site is surrounded by the largest Viking-age cemetery in Scandinavia, with around 3000 graves. Most people were cremated, then mounds of earth were piled over the remains, but some Christian coffins and chambered tombs have been found. The fort and harbour have also been excavated. To really appreciate the site, be sure to visit the superb Birka Museum which includes finds from the excavations, copies of the particularly stunning objects and a model of the village in Viking times.
In 830 the Benedictine monk Ansgar was sent to Birka by the Holy Roman Emperor to convert the heathen Vikings to Christianity; he hung around for 18 months. A cross to his memory can be seen on top of a nearby hill.
Exhibits at the brilliant Birka Museum include copies of the most magnificent objects found during excavations and a model of the Viking village.
Strömma Kanalbolaget runs round-trip cruises to Birka from Stadshusbron in central Stockholm. The trip takes two hours each way from Stockholm; plan on a full day’s outing. Price includes museum admission and a guided tour in English of the settlement’s burial mounds and fortifications. No ferries run during the Midsummer holidays.